Editorial Introduction

Robert Louis Stevenson, lifelong connoisseur of ‘penny dreadfuls’, was haunted by one in particular: A Mystery in Scarlet (1866), by “Malcolm J. Errym” (James Malcolm Rymer, 1814-84). In Stevenson's childhood, his nurse Alison Cunningham read this serial to him. “Memory may play me false,” Stevenson recalls in “Popular Authors,” published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1886, “but I believe there was a kind of merit about ERRYM,” whose Mystery in Scarlet “runs in my mind to this day” (126). Its persistence in his memory troubled him. He clearly recalled its villains, the tyrannical King George II and his sycophantic valet Norris, but he had forgotten the resolution. Consequently, he promises Scribner's readers, “if any hunter of autographs […] can lay his hand on a copy even imperfect, and will send it to me care of Mr. Scribner, my gratitude will drop even into poetry” (ibid).

Perhaps someone responded to this plea, for, by April 1889, Stevenson possessed a copy. Rereading it confirmed his debt to Errym. “I liked it [A Mystery in Scarlet] hugely,” he wrote to his former neighbor Adelaide Boodle, “far better than I ever expected; and see that Mr. Errym [...] had a genuine influence on me, and wish I had his talent, above all in sketching girls” (Mehew 396). 

Despite this degree of impact on Stevenson, A Mystery in Scarlet has never been reprinted, nor received any critical attention. This neglect might be due to scholars' assumption that it is irretrievably lost. The Orlando Project (Cambridge University, 2006-2017) biography of  Rymer claims “the text does not survive.” Only, it does, in at least two complete copies. One is at the British Library. The other, at Indiana University, Bloomington’s Wells Library, provides the text for this edition, which aims to bring this neglected text to Victorianists, particularly those studying the Victorian penny press, working-class literature, or Stevenson. 

James Malcolm Rymer, alias ‘Errym’

Stevenson did not know the identity of the author of A Mystery in Scarlet. Familiar with penny dreadfuls attributed to “Captain Merry, USN,” he correctly deduced that “Errym” is an anagram of “Merry,” and speculated that “Merry” was the author’s real name. In fact, “Merry” and “Errym” are both anagrammatic noms de plume of James Malcolm Rymer, a prolific and influential London author and editor of penny periodical content who, by the time he wrote A Mystery in Scarlet, had been consistently producing such material for over twenty years. The most successful member of a London literary-artistic family of Scottish origin that spanned the Romantic and Victorian eras (Nesvet, “Blood Relations”), Rymer began in the 1840s to work for the penny publishing magnate Edward Lloyd, an adherent of Chartism (Thompson 53), the reform movement that, in 1837-53, aimed to broaden the electorate and otherwise ameliorate working-class British life (Vanden Bossche).  For Lloyd, Rymer wrote ‘penny bloods’: illustrated fiction serials that targeted working-class family readers, often with dramatic, lurid plots, historical settings, and themes of rebellious or revolutionary criminality. Lloyd published the bloods in penny magazines, at least one of which Rymer edited. Successful bloods re-emerged from Lloyd’s presses, often in greatly expanded form, in “penny parts”: multivolume stand-alone serial editions that have been recognized as ancestors of the modern comic book. As Louis James observes, Rymer’s romance Ada, the Betrayed (1843), serialized in Lloyd’s Penny Weekly Miscellany, was a “runaway bestseller” (James, Fiction xx), causing Lloyd to advertise Rymer serials as the work of “the Author of Ada” for years thereafter and appealed to Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tillotson 31). Other well-received, relatively enduring bloods that Rymer wrote for Lloyd include Varney the Vampyre, or, the Feast of Blood (1845-7), an important precursor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the original tale of Sweeney Todd, The String of Pearls, a Romance (1846-7). Rymer later expanded it under the title The String of Pearls, or the Barber of Fleet Street, A Domestic Romance (1850).

While writing for Lloyd and other penny press publishers, Rymer kept a low profile. In his early publication The Queen’s Magazine , he had proudly used his full name in his bylines as editor and contributor and included an engraved portrait of himself surrounded by books and prints and taking dictation from an anthropomorphic “Spirit of the Age” (76). But, by 1843, he was publishing anonymously, and, in the 1850s and onwards, pseudonymously, under names including “Errym,” which he even used socially when dining with other penny writers (Collins x).

Rymer's penny fiction helped to acclimate Victorian working-class families to recreational reading. In a memoir of 1880, the working-class novelist Thomas Frost recalled the penny serial as an important resource that filled a gap in working-class intellectual life. “No longer ago than the commencement of the second quarter of the present [nineteenth] century readers were very few proportionately to the population,” Frost claims, so “no editor of a periodical dreamed of addressing either them or the working class” (67). Before the development of the “penny serial”—initially, dry, informational works published by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK)—Frost’s childhood household read only the Bible, “school books,” Cobbett’s Register, and political pamphlets (6-7). In early adulthood, he encountered Rymer’s anonymous bloods Varney the Vampyre and Ada the Betrayed. 

It is unclear why Rymer pursued anonymity so scrupulously, but the reputation of popular fiction might have had something to do with it. Middle-class commentators reviled penny bloods, insisting they promoted working-class idleness and violence, particularly in the aftermath of the valet Benjamin Francois Courvoisier's attribution of his murder of his employer Lord Russell to  William Harrison Ainsworth’s highwayman romance Jack Sheppard (Bentley’s Miscellany, 1839-40). Two Punch cartoons reveal this myth about penny bloods. In "'Parties' for the Gallows" (1845), a Cockney teenager tells a newsagent "I vonts an illustrated newspaper with a norrid ['an horrid'] murder and a likeness [portrait] in it'. In "Useful Sunday Literature for the Masses, or, Murder Made Familiar" (1849), the working-class "Father of a Family" reads to his wife and children "[t]he wretched Murderer is supposed to have cut the throats of his three eldest Children, and then to have killed the Baby by beating it repeatedly with a Poker," while a "likeness" of Courvoisier hangs on the wall and a Bible languishes on the floor, its page block open in the dirt (both reproduced in Jackson). In this context, Rymer may have preferred to avoid public association with penny bloods. In the early 1850s, Lloyd’s biographer Sarah Lill has shown, Lloyd gradually stopped printing penny bloods, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (Lill). Rymer found new employment with G.W. Reynolds, originator of the Anglophone strand of the urban mysteries genre and, like Lloyd, a Chartist. Again, he worked as a writer and editor, producing several stories at any one time while curating the work of others. 

Whether written for Lloyd or Reynolds, Rymer's penny bloods articulate radical political critique pitched to a target audience that, like Rymer himself, was metropolitan and working-class. Maisha Wester persuasively argues that The String of Pearls “highlights anxieties about the emergence of industrial capitalism,” specifically as experienced by working-class people (159). Ted Geier judges The String of Pearls an “essential expression of […] various nonhuman forms” and their relation to “various London publics” (120) that responds to debate about the future of meat trading at Smithfield Market. For Geier, Todd’s secret cannibal butcher shop prefigures the modern metropolis as a space of invisible butchery that processes people as commodities.  To Troy Boone, Rymer’s Varney, the Vampire “enables working-class readers to enter debates about violence and class typically identified with Chartist radicalism” (52). Rymer tells his readers they are “[f]ree to envision other narratives for themselves” than the tradition post-1789 narrative of class revolution as mob violence” (Boone 59). According to Ellen Rosenman, penny fiction is consistently shaped by political radicalisms. One of Rymer's Lloyd-published bloods, Mazeppa, or, the Wild Horse of the Ukraine (1850), even features a working-class hero whose Oriental compatriots demand for their Prime Minister, on account of his wisdom and bravery. In response, he explains the disenfranchisement of his class. "Oh, pho!" he says, "me a prime-minister anywhere out of England [...] would never do, and in England, I have not the capital" (492). His interlocutors are confused:

"The what?"
"The capital."
"Do you mean money?"
"No, not altogether money, although that is essential; but in England, you must know, no man can be anything or hope to be anything in the population without capital. That is to say, he must have have birth and its consequent influence, and its consequent opportunities."
"Birth?" said Mazeppa; "I thought that in England was of small amount, and that ability was a grand thing."
"Then, my dear friend, you know nothing at all about it. In England men are almost all born to be what they will be. One man is born a member of Parliament; another a parson; another a lawyer, and so on; and it is about as impossible for any one not born in the classes from which members of parliament, parsons, and lawyers are made, to become either, as it would be for me to walk away with the castle of Ureka in my waistcoat pocket."
"You indeed surprise me. I thought that England was the most liberal country upon the face of the earth."
"Tush! It's all humbug." (492-3)

Later in the 1850s, as Ellen Rosenman observes, a trio of Reynolds’s penny bloods concerned with the Crimean War “mark an important […] shift in the imaginary of radical politics” (95). Championing British working-class solidarity with foreign nations oppressed by Russian imperialism, including "the Circassians, the Minghrelians, the Wallachians, the Turks and the Poles," Reynolds's bloods echoed radical journalists' promotion of a new internationalism wherein the class-based "category of the 'people' superseded" the class-crossing category of "the nation" (100). Considered together, these various political interventions suggest that as a genre, the penny blood was revolutionary in intention, if not in effect.

It is therefore not surprising that its progress was quickly curtailed. In 1857, the Obscene Publications Act, also known as Lord Campbell’s Act, authorized the search of any premises suspected of harboring “obscene” literature as well as the seizure and destruction of such literature, from any such premises or the post. This legislation had a chilling effect on publishers of penny bloods. Lloyd abandoned the literature industry, focusing on newspapers and even buying up and destroying his own press’s bloods. Rymer survived to write less gory but equally politically engaged ‘penny dreadfuls’ for new publishers, such as John Dicks, for whom he proved, as with Lloyd, a “major” house author (James, ODNB 494). His 1860s dreadfuls include the highwayman serial Edith the Captive and its sequel, Edith Heron; the former of which Stevenson read. In 1866, he began editing a new penny periodical, The London Miscellany, which he designed to appeal to readers of his dreadfuls, his earlier bloods, and the new genre of the sensation novel while avoiding suspicion of immorality. He reveals these goals in a fictional dialogue, “The Editor and Paterfamilias,” published on in the London Miscellany’s February 10, 1866 first number. “You will cater largely in the ‘fiction’ way,” Paterfamilias establishes. “Now, what will be the nature of your Romances? Will they be all milk or of a more ensanguined colour?”

Ed. Something between—say couleur de rose [sic].
Pater. Yes: but will they be sensational?
Ed. You mention that word in a tone of alarm. Now, I am happy to say that those romances which rake up the gutter of human depravity are a commercial mistake. Their hideous portraits repel most readers […] but, if you ask me whether our tales will bristle with incident, curl round the reader, and drag him along with them, I answer that we will use any known recipe for effecting that object. You must not be deluded by a cuckoo cry. The most “correct” magazines endeavor to be sensational. (12)

With this retort, Rymer’s editorial persona reassures Paterfamilias and brazenly questions the morality of upscale periodicals. In the pages of The London Miscellany, the Editor (Rymer) keeps up this rhetorical pose, at one point warning the reader that Lord Byron—a writer frequently quoted and cited in Rymer’s earlier bloods, and the source of his blood Mazeppa, “was a tippler [drunk]’ whose ‘vile Don Juan’ is ‘unfit for any woman to read” (130).

In practice, however, The London Miscellany’s couleur de rose proved a decidedly deep red. The first volume of the magazine offers two short tales by “Lewis Monk” (30, 62), a pseudonym that invokes Matthew G. Lewis, author of The Monk (1796), which, as Diane Long Hoeveler has shown, penny bloods emulated (Hoeveler 246). The William Heard Hillyard serial The Fair Savage, A Story of an Indian War-Trail, which runs in the first eleven numbers of The London Miscellany, features a villain with a “Tarquin-like project” (10): an attempted rapist. In no. 15, Rymer recycles a bloody tale that informs his masterpiece The String of Pearls, “The Murders in the Rue de la Harpe” (anon., The Tell-Tale, 1824; reprinted in Lloyd’s Miscellany, 1842), retitling it “The Barber Fiend” (239). Another allusion to the penny bloods of the 1840s permeates A Mystery in Scarlet: its protagonist, Captain Weed Markham, shares a name with Richard Markham, the picaresque hero of Reynolds’s bestselling and widely-emulated penny blood The Mysteries of London (1844-5), itself a “strong influence” on Rymer’s The String of Pearls (Collins xxii). These allusions demonstrate that in The London Miscellany, the penny blood genre was not dead, just buried in print of which Paterfamilias would approve.

Neither was Rymer’s political fire. The London Miscellany continues the radicalism of his earlier works, consistently pointing out upper-class excess and irresponsibility and the need for justice for working men and the poor. In the first number, a Rymer-authored serial, Emmeline, or, the Serpent in the Wreath, introduces an early “owner” of a “lordly mansion”:

Clinging to the gilt balustrades of the staircase, his hair wildly disordered, a brocade dressing-gown, torn and disarranged, as it hung about him, and the wild fire of partial intoxication in his eyes [...] the Sybarite [...] at his nod, could have the remotest corners of the globe ransacked to his appetites and his luxuries. (6)

Reminiscent of a Continental aristocratic villain out of the novels of Anne Radcliffe---or Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade---this character is in fact British. His “mansion” is located in London's Grosvenor Square. Continuing this theme, an anecdote about Richard Brinsley Sheridan sees the playwright rebuke “a young wealthy heir" for “prid[ing] himself on the accident of his birth” (8). Included with this number were four elaborate pull-out color prints that preview another Rymer serial, Rich and Poor (nos. 3 and 4), in which stock rich characters economically, sexually, and judicially exploit poor ones, with fatal consequences. The prints are the work of artist Robert Prowse (Adcock), controversial illustrator of Charley Wag, The New Jack Sheppard (1860-1), which builds up to a Tower of London heist (Springhall 62). In no. 5, an anonymous contributor declared that “[h]e who is not angry when injustice is perpetrated against the poor and helpless need not mock Heaven with his prayers; hell is ever waiting for him, and the devil will never be further away than his elbow” (69). By making the editorial decision to print this aphorism, Rymer renders acceptance of the socio-economic status quo a danger to the well-off Briton’s soul.

A Mystery in Scarlet

A longing for reform also breathes life into The London Miscellany’s leading serial, A Mystery in Scarlet: specifically, the text explores anxieties about the perceived relations between gender, householder status, age, and capacity for responsible political participation. For most of Rymer’s lifetime, activists had pursued the expansion of the franchise beyond the male contingent of the socio-economic elite. As Carolyn Vellenga Berman observes, the “Great” Reform Act (1832) admitted to the franchise men who paid homeowner's rates of £10 per annum. This reform increased the percentage of British men eligible to vote increased by 5%, but the change hardly benefited on the working class. As an 1840 editorial noted, "less than one in thirty of the entire population” (emphasis original). Regions with low property values were hit particularly hard by the property test's quantitative benchmark. For instance, as Asa Briggs points out, in Leeds, "the working classes were almost completely debarred from the franchise since they lived in houses of £5 to £8 in value" (Briggs 239). The unfinished business of expanding the electorate to genuinely represent the people remained subject to intense debate for the next several decades and was a major pillar of Chartism. Parliament rejected the further expansion of the electorate proposed in three successive successive Chartist petitions (1839, 1842, and 1848).

In 1865, a new reform campaign heated up. As Janice Carlisle shows, in 1866-7, “one question stood out from all others […] as the main issue of […] franchise reform: how many men—for which read, how many working-class men—should be added to the electorate?” In answer to this question, many reformers defended “enfranchising [only] the respectable artisan—typically envisaged as a family man and a moral, self-improving citizen” (Gleadle 32). According to this logic, “[t]he ability of the head of the household to provide for his dependents and exert authority over them indicated his capacity for responsible citizenship,” in contrast with the “sexually free bachelor” and the residuum, or supposedly idle poor (32-3). Implicitly, household suffrage disenfranchises most young men and makes political responsibility a condition to grow into.

For many participants in the debate, this was not reform enough. In February 1866, James Clay, M.P. for Hull, proposed to enfranchise “those men of ‘full age’ who were able to pass a simple educational test” (quoted ibid). Clay’s “young men’s bill,” as Gladstone called it, failed (33). Especially in the wake of its failure, household suffrage seemed to many reformers “a realistic compromise compared with [universal] manhood suffrage” (34).

In this context, it is significant that “Paterfamilias” is an apt description of three major figures in A Mystery in Scarlet. The title character, protagonist, and villain are all fathers or father-figures, and the novel focuses thematically on the extent to which each rises to or fails at that role. The novel begins in the mid-eighteenth century, with King George II inspecting his image, not in a mirror, but in an uncannily mirror-like portrait, scrutinizing “a brow so wrinkled and corrugated that it more resembled some strange fabric which had been exposed to the action of fire than any thing human” (1). Like Dorian Gray’s portrait half a century later, this Gothic eikon basilike horrifyingly reveals the King’s moral flaws in physiognomic form. Tyrannical, paranoid, avaricious, sexually unfaithful, and consumed with hatred for his suffering queen, Caroline of Ansbach, and ambitious son, Frederick Prince of Wales, George II reassures himself, out loud, that patriotism involves both “service to his king—and—and his country—of course his country” (2). As a father to his own family and the nation, this monarch is a complete failure. While one 1860s opponent of expanded suffrage, Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke, contended that working-class men gravitated toward "venality, ignorance" and "unreflecting violen[ce]" (qtd. in Briggs 460), A Mystery in Scarlet suggests these qualities have also distinguished the present monarch's ancestors.

As the plot unfolds, Rymer depicts two disenfranchised men evolving into good father-figures, subjects, and leaders. This process begins when King George orders a loyal Kew Palace guard, Captain Weed Markham, to lead a firing squad in the execution of an unnamed stranger in a scarlet coat, who identifies himself only as “a Mystery in Scarlet” (3). Markham obeys, as always: an orphan, he has “neither kith nor kin,” is “alone in this wide world” and consequently grateful for the livelihood and purpose his commission provides. When the body of the Mystery in Scarlet vanishes and Markham, at the King’s command, endeavors to locate it, he finds that the Mystery is not dead—and is the secret elder half-brother of George II. This origin makes the Mystery Britain’s rightful king. Suddenly a servant of two royal masters, Markham is uncertain whom to protect and how to act. He is, however, able to discern, that his efficacy as a subject is limited by his degree of power. “What should he do?” Markham thinks:

Or, rather, what could he do?
What was his duty?
And that again resolved itself into, what was his power? (66)

Without “power,” Rymer insists, the British subject is unable to fulfill his patriotic “duty.”

As the serial continues, the Mystery struggles to advance his claim and protect his daughter and only heir, Bertha, and charges Markham to protect her as if he were her father. “[B]e to her that which I would have been,” the Mystery begs (3). Markham tries, but, of course, he falls in love with her, complicating this vow yet also making it easier to fulfill, given the patriarchal nature of the Victorian ideal of marriage. His loyalty to George II challenged by the Mystery’s credible claim and his love for Bertha, Markham must determine how to best serve his country. In the end, he does so by rescuing the Mystery while deterring him from violent revolution, a threat underscored by repeated, often ghoulish references to the Civil War (1642-41) and the Regicide (1659). With this resolution, Rymer questions the notion that the ruling elite unquestionably produces good paterfamiliae.

A Mystery in Scarlet also makes a more complex and subtle argument for working-class paterfamiliae’s political self-determination. Captain Markham is a young man of no illustrious background who, in gaining a wife and family, learns to be a responsible subject and leader. As the story progresses, the young, alienated Markham acquires responsibility for a daughter-figure, who eventually becomes his wife. At the same time, Markham is exiled from the Royal Guard and must make a new life with his young wife. The unquestioning career soldier matures into a critically reflexive citizen. Furthermore, as the Mystery in Scarlet is ultimately revealed as a credible pretender to the British throne, his decree that Markham should protect his daughter and his permission for Markham to marry her makes Markham a citizen by a kind of royal will. This plot point implies that British national destiny requires the enfranchisement of working-class paterfamiliae, including nascent ones like Markham. Furthermore, Rymer’s demonization of George II demonstrates that age, paternity, and marriage do not necessarily make a man just or good. That being so, perhaps promising, industrious young men like Markham should have a chance at shared governance, even as bachelors--just as, sixteen years earlier, the characters of Mazeppa had hoped for their British working-class hero Lumpus.

Textual History and Illustrations

Copies of The London Miscellany, volume one, containing the eighteen instalments of A Mystery in Scarlet, are scarce but accessible. A bound copy of this volume survives in the collection of the Wells Library at Indiana University, Bloomington. The same university’s Lilly Library possesses additional, unbound copies of the first and eighteenth numbers, containing the first and final instalments. The entire first volume and some later numbers are also in the British Library’s Barry Ono Collection. None of this evidence eliminates the possibility of a lost penny parts edition’s publication, in Stevenson’s possession or otherwise, but until such an edition is located, we must not assume it was ever published. As far as we can now know, the London Miscellany is the serial’s only edition.

Like all leading serials in penny magazines, A Mystery in Scarlet is illustrated. It carries seventeen illustrations: one per instalment with the unexplained exception of the ninth instalment. The illustrations are probably by the iconic Dickens illustrator "Phiz" (pseudonym of Hablot Knight Browne). The London Miscellany credits Phiz as the illustrator of some of the magazine's content. At the end of the first number, a “Notice to Subscribers” announces that “a high class of Illustrations” is assured because “we have made permanent arrangements with PHIZ, and other eminent Artists engaged on Once a Week, Good Words, The Leisure Hour, and other approved serials” (12). In later numbers, specific serials’ illustrations are credited to Phiz; among them, the generic ‘urban mysteries’ sketch collection London Revelations, as a note in no. 4 declares (44), and in 1907, Victorian journalist Thomas Power O’Connor declared in his periodical T.P.’s Weekly that Phiz was the illustrator. "Malcolm J. Errym ... a transposition of his real surname, Rymer... flourished about half a century ago," O'Connor recalls. "I remember a story of his called "A Mystery in Scarlet," treating of King George II, and the Young Pretender. This was illustrated by "Phiz" (Hablot K. Browne), and appeared in the London Miscellany," about 1867" (732). O’Connor is wrong about the Young Pretender (Charles Edward Stuart), but otherwise correctly identifies Rymer, claiming he "also wrote for Reynolds's Miscellany" (ibid), and, having worked for the London Telegraph in the 1870s, probably knew people who knew Rymer personally. In the twenty-first century, the penny fiction scholar John Adcock has declared in his blog Yesterday's Papers that Phiz is the illustrator of A Mystery in Scarlet.

This attribution also makes sense aesthetically, as the illustrations look very much like Phiz's work. They are rendered in the "comedic and theatrical style" for which he was renowned, and which was largely displaced in the 1860s by a new, more serious mode (Allingham "A Tale"). Several features echo Phiz's earlier works, including his Dickens illustrations. These include oblong compositions, meticulously detailed eighteenth-century court dress, lines that appear thin for a wood relief print, exaggerated facial expressions, portraits hung in rows above the characters, characters drawn from the back as they wheel dynamically forwards, and crowd scenes in which the crowd appears to have lined up in one or two horizontal rows at the front of the composition. On account of the strong stylistic similarities, Phiz's modern biographer Valerie Browne Lester has "no doubt whatsoever" that the artwork is "very obviously by Phiz" (Lester). 

A Mystery Illustrated

The illustrations are wood engravings. As Allingham notes, in 1850-1880, durable, inexpensively-produced wood engravings "accounted for 25% or better of all illustrations" in the British book business (Allingham, "Technologies.") Wood relief (engravings and woodcuts) also dominated the penny press since the 1830s, and in editing The London Miscellany, Rymer seems to have insisted upon wood relief. In the fourth number, he castigates a correspondent for submitting a drawing for consideration in another medium. “The drawing should have been on wood,” Rymer declares. “If you will send us a block, we shall be able to judge” if it is suitable (64). Nevertheless, Browne found the medium frustrating.  As Rodney K. Engen has documented in his Dictionary of Victorian Wood Engravers, "Browne was never comfortable drawing on wood, his style being too fine-lined and sketchy to be adequately engraved or printed" (34). In 1867, he wrote to his son that he was engaged to supply a "Sporting Paper" with drawings on wood. "I hate the process," he declared:

It takes quite four times as long on wood--and I cannot draw and express myself with a nasty little finiking brish, and the result when printed seems to alternate between something all as black as my hat--or as hazy and faint as a worn-out plate. (qtd. in Kitton 19)

Still, work was work, so during the 1860s, Browne executed at least 227 "designs for wood engravings" including "the Routledge Shilling Toybook The Young Ragamuffin, 1866, engraved by the Dalziels," the visionary engravers responsible in the same decade for bringing John Tenniel's Alice in Wonderland illustrations to life (Engen 34-5). Rymer must have been delighted to obtain his collaboration on The London Miscellany.

In any case, Rymer should have, because the engravings are dramatically effective, if not particularly original. Of Phiz's illustrations for A Tale of Two Cities, Allingham observes that instead of adding unwritten meaning, they make "characters initially unknown become more and more recognizable as a result of an interaction of text and plate, and of the plates with each other" (Allingham, "A Tale.") The illustrations of A Mystery in Scarlet have the same effect, stereotyping (in the printing-related sense of that word) the stock characters in the brain, facilitating their instant recall when, after vanishing into London's shadows for a few chapters, they reappear.

Moreover, Phiz's contribution to A Mystery in Scarlet reinforces Rymer’s political agenda. Upper-class villains such as Norris appear comedic figures. In the first illustration, Norris crouches like a lapdog at the heels of the gallant Captain Markham. Court scenes underscore the sumptuous extravagance and frivolous antiquated fashion of early Hanoverian St. James, echoing the class politics of the text. Further reinforcing this rhetoric, Prowse's Rich and Poor prints depict the rich in the same way and the poor with dignity, and grouped into nuclear families. These images add essential ideological support to the text of A Mystery in Scarlet.

Editorial Methodology

In preparing this critical edition, I aim to provide scholars of Victorian literature with an accurate, machine-readable text of A Mystery in Scarlet and a relatively uninterrupted human-reading experience. I have transcribed A Mystery in Scarlet from the Wells Library copy of the London Miscellany. The result is partly documentary, as my edition faithfully reproduces the original 1866 text, organized, like the original, into eighteen instalments, each of which contains an engraving, caption, and three chapters. Each chapter is also provided as an Extensible Markup Language (XML) document that conforms to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) Guidelines. These XML files may be transformed and downloaded in a variety of formats using the TEI's open-access OxGarage service. Most of the engravings (Nos. 2-17) derive from the Wells Library copy of the London Miscellany, and are rendered in black and white for reasons of clarity and of faithfulness to their likely appearance when they emerged from the press in 1866. The illustrations of the first and final instalments are reproduced from the Lilly Library’s slightly better, near-magically clean unbound copies of those numbers. The Lilly copy of no. 1 is also the source of the images of the Prowse artworks. The text is paginated as in the London Miscellany, so there are gaps in the pagination.

I have amended some of the London Miscellany’s typographical errors, and marked corrected text with square brackets []. Annotations following bracketed phrases reveal the original, erroneous text.  However, other idiosyncrasies of the source are preserved, including the original formatting of the line breaks. Relatively short instalments of 6,000-7,500 words occupy a great deal of space on your screen due to Rymer’s frequent use of one-sentence paragraphs, a convention that pervades his bloods and dreadfuls. While these build tension, they also consume column inches quickly, allowing him to meet preset quotas quickly and to write multiple serials at once. I suspect this convention contributes to the scarcity of Rymer reprints and modern editions, as such a waste of paper and ink does not accord well with the economics of academic print publishing.

As for the critical apparatus, brief annotations supply informational notes including on the text’s relation to other works by Rymer, fellow penny authors such as Reynolds, and Stevenson. Appendices include a character family tree, two galleries of illustrations (one containing the seventeen illustrations of A Mystery in Scarlet and the other, the four more elaborate illustrations of Rich and Poor that were included with The London Miscellany no. 1), and an examination of how A Mystery in Scarlet appears to haunt Stevenson's novel The Master of Ballantrae, which he completed shortly after rediscovering A Mystery in Scarlet. 

The COVE Collective’s open-access policy ensures that a new generation of readers may now experience A Mystery in Scarlet without needing, as Stevenson did, to offer up a valuable autograph that ‘drop[s] even into poetry’.

So, go on.

Look over Stevenson’s shoulder as, holed up in his cabin crossing the Pacific or temporarily at rest in Waikiki, he carefully opens a volume of folio pages, the paper brittle after only twenty years, and peers first at the illustrated plate, then the caption, then the text.

A mystery awaits.

I hope you will enjoy it as thoroughly as he did.

 

Works Cited

Note: only open-access born-digital electronic sources are hyperlinked.
Hyperlinked sites will open in new windows.

Adcock, John. “The London Miscellany.” Yesterday's Papers. June 21, 2012. [retrieved June 28, 2018].

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